Since his death in the mid 1980s, the legend of Chester B. Himes (1909–84)—ex-con, expat, man with a lengthy list of ex-wives and partners, and black artist possessed of an explosive rage—has loomed as large as his literary reputation. Lawrence P. Jackson's new biography undertakes the job of discovering Himes's multilayered literary significance; appropriately, Jackson suggests, Himes's historic impact as a twentieth-century literary artist can be fully appreciated only through a study of his often volatile, restless, and tortured life. It is surely true that the bloom of all serious art sprouts from an artist's experience, and this truth seems acutely apparent in Himes's case.

Himes is the preeminent black author of the masculine, case-hardened style. His stark, uncompromising narratives explore a racially psychopathic America, freighted with existential hardship where black men, on both sides of the law, inhabit a bleakly absurd, sometimes darkly comic, frequently surreal world of compulsive...

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